Imports play a major economic role for state and nation

May 2, 2013 

Imagine waking up one morning and there were no coffee, bananas or chocolate in your local grocery store.

Suddenly you discover the prices of almost all consumer products — from clothes to computers – have increased 20 to 50 percent. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs, and companies aren’t hiring because their production costs are higher and fewer people have disposable income to buy their products.

What could wreak so much havoc and turn Americans’ lives upside down? The above scenario is America with no imports.

While exports are praised as keys to economic success, imports are portrayed as detrimental and the main cause of shifts in U.S. employment. Yet, in today’s global economy, exports and imports are inextricably linked as forces of economic growth, and imports play a very important and positive role in our economy.

In Washington, where trade is the single largest driver of our economy, 25 percent of all trade-related jobs are tied to imports. Last year’s International Competitiveness Strategy for Washington State found that imports are linked to at least 277,000 Washington jobs across a variety of industries.

Our ports, including the Port of Tacoma, employ thousands of workers to unload cargo from Asia, which also creates jobs for logistics professionals who transport these goods to the rest of the country. In fact, 78 percent of cargo traveling through the Port of Tacoma is imported.

Manufacturers such as Boeing and major retailers such as Nordstrom and REI leverage global supply chains to produce and sell competitive products, thus creating more U.S. jobs in fields such as design, engineering, logistics, marketing and sales.

Washington food and beverage producers such as Starbucks and Theo’s rely on access to coffee and chocolate, which are not grown in the United States. Without imports, many of these companies would employ far fewer Washingtonians, and some of them might not exist at all.

Imports also benefit every Washingtonian in two ways: by considerably lowering their cost of living and helping their household incomes go further, and by providing access to an array of goods that wouldn’t otherwise be available. In Washington, we are fortunate to have such a wide selection of products at all price points at our fingertips.

Washington manufacturers also benefit from access to low-cost, high-quality imported inputs.

In fact, a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that they have played a much greater role in boosting U.S. manufacturing than exports.

It would not be possible for many companies, including many of the 650 aerospace companies in our state, to produce globally competitive products at a reasonable cost (or at all) without global sourcing. By utilizing global supply chains, companies can make products more affordable, allowing them to sell to more customers both here and abroad. The increased sales in turn enable them to create more U.S. jobs all along the value chain.

In addition, imports expand our capacity to export; without the large number of containers that arrive at the Port of Tacoma carrying imports, it would be difficult for Washington exporters to access enough containers to export products such as apples or potatoes to countries around the world.

So the next time you enjoy a cup of — imported — coffee or marvel at all the ships sailing in and out of the Port of Tacoma, remember that we live in a truly interconnected world, and that we’re better off that way.

By focusing on building on our competitive advantages, investing in educating our students with skills for the 21st-century economy and ensuring that all our trading partners play by the rules, Washington has the potential to benefit even further, ensuring economic stability and prosperity for all our state’s residents.

Tom Pierson is the CEO and president of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber. Eric Schinfeld is the president of the Washington Council on International Trade.

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